Although many organizations consider diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) top priorities, it doesn’t mean the systems put in place to address them are always effective. Growing public awareness of the lack of diversity in the modern workplace has given business leaders cause to re-evaluate DEI practices within their own companies — and the results have been mixed.
In many cases, virtue-signaling statements of support and commitments to change by businesses are followed up with little or lackluster action that only serves to perpetuate the same inadequate efforts of the past. Other initiatives, such as diversity training, are useful for generating awareness in the short term, but often fall short of creating lasting change.
Let’s dive deeper into the reasons why many diversity programs fail and how to re-evaluate your own DEI efforts to avoid this.
Why diversity programs fail
Diversity programs have been around for years. But when you look at the statistics, it’s clear that these efforts have delivered lackluster results. Across all industries, people from underrepresented groups continue to face considerable challenges ranging from being overlooked for promotions to workplace harassment.
Understanding why these programs fail is one of the first steps towards landing on a comprehensive strategy that’s truly effective at supporting employees and delivering on business outcomes.
Although no two organizations are the same, there are commonalities across different types of diversity programs that contribute to their lack of success. Here are a few key factors to be aware of:
Lack of support beyond hiring
Hiring for diversity is one of the first and most impactful initiatives that businesses employ to advance DEI efforts. However, simply introducing diverse individuals to an organization through recruitment doesn’t guarantee the long-term success of those employees.
It’s critical for business leaders to look at DEI as it relates to the employee lifecycle. This means developing systems and processes that support these team members throughout the entirety of their time with the organization. Are there diversity-specific mentoring or sponsorship programs that exist? Is your company culture welcoming and inclusive? How do you ensure that new hires take advantage of professional development opportunities?
Failure to plan for DEI beyond hiring can be even more alienating to the underrepresented talent that you bring on.
Resistance to change
Organizations must be willing to identify and address existing company practices that may be perpetuating oppression. It’s necessary to throw out all notions of “we’ve always done things this way” and be comfortable with up-ending systems that have been around for a long time. Although it can be challenging, this type of work is necessary for unearthing discriminatory practices within your business, many of which are usually unintentional.
Most companies likely already have some sort of process in place that serves this function, such as a recurring diversity audit or employee feedback survey. Being transparent with your employees about the actions you’re taking based on the results of these efforts is equally as important as generating the findings themselves.
Solely focused on diversity training
From workshops to seminars, there are countless ways to approach diversity training. Although these methods are effective at educating employees on the DEI topics that are most important, training alone isn’t enough to incite organizational change. Attending a diversity seminar won’t wipe away a person’s unconscious biases that have formed over their entire lifetime — and it’s not intended to.
Instead, view training as a tool for generating awareness that’s just one tactic associated with a larger, more comprehensive strategy. Training efforts should be supplemented with other initiatives that drive action and encourage employees to take what they’ve learned and actually apply it.
Strategy is owned by the wrong people
Promoting a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace is the responsibility of every employee. However, when it comes to making strategic business decisions about a company-wide DEI plan, it’s necessary to be clear on who is responsible for owning these efforts.
Many companies look towards HR teams to take ownership of DEI. While this may seem logical since HR is the business unit responsible for training and hiring, much of the work involved in DEI extends far beyond these practices. Additionally, bucketing diversity under an existing business function moves it even further away from the team that should be held accountable for its success: executive leadership.
Powerful tactics for developing diversity programs that work
By now, virtually every leading organization has developed some form of initiative that’s meant to address workplace diversity. But as we’ve discussed, simply having a DEI program in place isn’t enough to drive results.
An ineffective diversity program is doing a disservice to both your business and people, so let’s walk through a few ways you can optimize your existing efforts:
- Integrate diversity efforts with company culture
For a diversity program to be successful, change has to start from within — this means cultivating a company culture and work environment that’s welcoming to employees from all backgrounds and social practice traditions. Corporate culture often defaults to the most familiar social standards and unintentionally leaves out everyone else. Trying to introduce diversity programs into this type of environment sets your efforts back right away.
It’s not possible to change company culture overnight, but there are small policy changes you can enact that make a big difference on how comfortable employees feel at work and how they start to view and think about DEI within your company.
An example of this is giving employees flexible time off to celebrate the cultural or religious holidays that they take part in, not just the most common or popular holidays. Another example is ensuring that work events are inclusive of individuals with different religious or life practices.
- Work with executives to promote cross-level collaboration
In many cases, the C-suite sets the tone for company culture — this can also apply to how the organization views DEI. Traditional diversity initiatives work with a top-down, power-over modality. But to be successful, it’s important to re-think this approach to support a power-with strategy. This requires working with the executive leadership and other levels of management to learn how to engage employees and have active discussions around company culture and diversity. When you make it clear that workplace DEI is a collaborative effort and show employees that their opinions are heard, it encourages team members at all levels of the organization to take part in driving change.
- Hire DEI specialists
If your current team doesn’t have the DEI expertise necessary to drive the strategy forward, hire for it. Simply bucketing diversity under the many existing priorities of an HR department is rarely enough to sustain a successful initiative. Seek out external subject matter experts to work directly with your HR and leadership teams to provide the expertise needed to execute against your goals.
- Prioritize workforce education
The lack of access to quality education is a major driver of workplace inequality. Black, Indigenous and Latinx individuals in the United States are far less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than white Americans largely due to enduring systemic barriers. However, businesses are in a unique position to break down these barriers by offering workforce education to their employees.
When coupled with other DEI initiatives, a strategic workforce education program allows you to put real action behind your promises and provide your people with the ability to develop long-term skills that propel their careers forward. This ensures that the diverse talent you hire is equipped with the tools they need to be successful far past the onboarding process.
DEI in the workplace: a work in progress
It’s important to understand that your DEI strategy is never truly “done.” The best way to ensure its success is to continuously work towards making improvements that align with your employees and their shifting needs.
Ready to unlock more DEI resources? Download this must-have checklist for leaders championing the movement to further DEI within their organizations.